In a last-ditch push to overcome GOP obstruction, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer late Wednesday unveiled a plan to temporarily evade the filibuster and bring voting rights legislation to the floor of the upper chamber for debate.
Outlined in an internal memo distributed to congressional Democrats, Schumer's strategy involves several obscure procedural maneuvers that began Wednesday night in the House, which moved just before midnight to replace the text of an unrelated NASA bill with language from the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
"Now is the time for every American to make their voices heard and urge their elected leaders in the Senate to act."
"I did not expect this outcome when I first introduced the NASA Enhanced Use Leasing Extension Act," Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) told reporters. "If my legislation will help overcome the filibuster, the Senate can finally have the long-overdue debate on voting rights this country deserves."
The amended legislation will soon be transmitted to the Senate as a "message," a step that allows Democrats to open debate on the measure without needing 60 votes. In recent months, Senate Republicans have used the filibuster rule four times to block debate on voting rights legislation.
"With this procedure, we will finally have an opportunity to debate voting rights legislation—something that Republicans have thus far denied," Schumer wrote in the memo.
Ultimately, though, the majority leader acknowledged that his strategy only delays an inevitable confrontation over the filibuster rule, which progressive lawmakers and activists have characterized as a relic of the Jim Crow era that must be abolished completely.
In order to cut off debate on the voting rights legislation and move to a final vote on their legislation, Senate Democrats will need the support of at least 10 Republicans—which they're not likely to achieve.
If Republicans filibuster once again, Schumer said Wednesday, Democrats will move to establish a simple-majority threshold for passage of the voting rights legislation.
"We will need 10 Republicans to join us—which we know from past experience will not happen—or we will need to change the Senate rules as has been done many times before," the New York Democrat explained in his memo.
Such a change in Senate rules would require support from the entire Senate Democratic caucus. Thus far, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), and others have refused to back proposals to alter the filibuster rule even as a growing number of their colleagues—as well as President Joe Biden—have rallied behind a carve-out for voting rights.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate and a previous defender of the filibuster, wrote in a blog post Wednesday that "we cannot let the filibuster stop us from ever debating voting rights or any other issue one member might find objectionable."
"If it's the filibuster or democracy, I'll choose our democracy," Murray wrote. "If it's Senate rules or a Senate that works for the American people, I'll choose a Senate that works. And I am urging my Senate colleagues to make that same choice."
"If it's the filibuster or democracy, I'll choose our democracy."
Senate Democrats' voting rights Hail Mary comes as advocates fear Congress is running out of time to stop the Republican Party's nationwide onslaught against the franchise ahead of the pivotal 2022 midterm elections.
In 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 19 Republican-led states passed 34 laws restricting ballot access—a "tidal wave" of voter suppression that is expected to continue in the new year.
Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy, applauded Schumer's plan to force a floor battle over voting rights and said it is "imperative" that Democrats "do not let outdated and dysfunctional rules stand in the way of restoring the Senate and delivering the Freedom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to the American people."
"As the clock ticks closer to midnight on the deadline to protect our freedom to vote, now is the time for every American to make their voices heard and urge their elected leaders in the Senate to act," Morgan said in a statement. "Together we can realize a democracy that represents, reflects, and responds to all of us."